"There was never a doubt that I must always look towards Mecca if I was to amount to anything worthwhile in this world." This statement, by Ziauddin Sardar, puts into perspective not just the importance of that holy spot in his life, but the reverence it inspires in the lives of millions the world over. It also explains why Sardar must have felt compelled to write a book like this; one that is equal parts,  memoir, travelogue and history.

Muslim pilgrims perform their fairwell circumambul-ation around Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca
Muslim pilgrims perform their fairwell circumambul-ation around Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca. PIC/AFP

There is much of interest here for Muslims and non-Muslims alike. For the latter, it is a fascinating exploration of why approximately 17 million visitors from around the world come to Mecca each year, much as they have for centuries. It also traces — in a refreshing, non-pedantic manner — the site’s long and colourful history. For Muslims, what ought to be of interest is Sardar’s barely disguised anger at what Mecca has slowly but surely been turned into: a tourist trap occupied by malls, five-star hotels, fast food chains and stores that sell branded handbags.

Is Mecca supposed to keep pace with the times, or exist outside history as we know it? Should 'Kaaba selfies' at the site be tolerated or banned, as some authorities have been considering in recent months? Should the religious beliefs of those who rule the land that Mecca stands on impinge upon what other Islamic sects have long believed in? What can happen if a fanatical fundamentalist organisation were to gain control of the place? Sardar tackles these and other thorny questions with warmth, humour and, importantly, critical distance.

As one grows older, one comes around to believing that the only thing that can enable dialogue between warring factions is empathy and understanding. This book ought to be looked at as a great step in that direction.

Mecca: The Sacred City

Mecca: The Sacred City, Ziauddin Sardar, Bloomsbury India, Rs 599